Of course we all want to find our books at the top of the New York Times best seller list. We want our books to be taught in English classes for decades if not centuries to come. We want to be spoken of in the same breath as Shakespeare or Melville or whoever we most admire or think most people most admire. Of course we want theme parks to be built around our fantasy series. Of course we want the super serious, expensive HBO series… oh, how we want, want, want.
And hey, all that’s great. Honestly, more power to anyone and everyone who achieves those things, or some version of any of those things. But I know—I hope, at least—that we can all agree that us poor lowly writers out here are powerless to actually make that kind of thing happen on our own. There is no secret Amazon algorithm by which that kind of success can be conjured up. Everything listed above, and not just the absurd stuff but even reasonable stuff like writing a best seller—that’s more reasonable than the theme park thing—is a result of not just having finished a novel, but the result of a wildly improbable set of circumstances that follow its publication.
I wish all these great things for everyone who puts pen to paper, but here’s the thing…
First, set pen to paper!
None of that great stuff happens before you write a book. It’s like hoping you’ll win the lottery without buying a ticket. The chances of the million-dollar payday is infinitesimally small, but drops to zero if you don’t buy the ticket. Likewise, the chances of fame and fortune as an author drops to zero if you don’t write the book.
And since we know—we know this, don’t we?—that the guaranteed success strategy is a myth, is entirely out of our control, then what is under our control? I mean, come on, even writers have to be in control of something.
The only thing we have control over is the quality of our work.
And there’s a lot that goes into “quality.” A clean copy edit—yes, for sure. Learn and practice the craft of writing. You can learn some storytelling basics at least. You can try out formulas and other things—explore the wide world of writing advice, starting with Fantasy Author’s Handbook and working your way down… Okay… Anyway…
There is probably an infinite number of ways to approach and to write a novel, but the one thing that has to be there is the author’s passion for their own writing. You have to love it. You have to value it. You have to have something to say.
So advice number one, more important than anything, is love writing!
I know writing is hard, but being difficult doesn’t mean you can’t love it. The difficulty of it, the challenge, is actually one of the things I like most about writing.
What all that “success” stuff boils down to is expectations. In “Want to Be Happier? Jettison Expectations,” Eric Weiner wrote:
Gandhi was not results-oriented. He was process-oriented. He made no distinction between means and ends. For him, the means were the ends. How you achieve your goals is more important than whether you achieve them. The delicious irony is that this process-oriented approach produces better results than a results-oriented one.
In a landmark study, Teresa Amabile, a psychologist at Harvard University, found that expectation of a reward or evaluation, even a positive evaluation, squelched creativity. She calls this phenomenon the intrinsic theory of motivation. “People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and the challenge of the work itself—not by external pressures,” she said.
Not only does living expectations-free soften the sting when life goes sideways, as it inevitably does, it frees us up for the possibility of unexpected delight, what the writer Robert Grudin calls “the beauty of sudden seeing.”
There are a lot of businesses in which its expected that we’ll have some expectations, that we’ll be goal-oriented, that we’ll be tracking performance and revenue and all that stuff I hated about being part of the business of publishing. But the writing itself? Throw those business expectations right out the goddamn window, and write for the pure joy of it. If all you’re trying to do is get rich, writing fiction might be the hardest way to accomplish that. If you burn to tell stories, tell stories!
The great Haruki Murakami said: “I’m a writer, and I’m writing, but at the same time I feel as though I were reading some exciting, interesting book. So I enjoy the writing.”
Jettison the expectations and enjoy the writing!
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